Costuming Tips For The Cheap And Desperate


You've got an event coming up - probably a live-action roleplaying game, if you're here - and you need to throw together a costume. Costuming can make or break a game - as proper attire helps players get into character and can help evoke the proper mood for a game. Those mysterious cultists look a lot more threatening when they are in dark robes, rather than jeans and tee-shirts. You can create evocative costumes, even on a tight budget, and your game will benefit by it.

This is my own collection of tips and suggestions, accumulated over many years of LARPing and a general love of dressing up on a small budget. This document is divided into two sections - tips for those who can sew and have access to a sewing machine and a section for those who don't. I suggest that you read the entire document, and pick and choose what suits your needs.

Tips For Everyone

Period Pieces
If you are running a 'period' event, such as a Call of Cthulhu game set in the 1890's or an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery set in the 1920's, gathering up costumes can be difficult.

Decide What You Want.
Determine what you are looking for. Do you want to find a formal suit, or a rough-and-tough outfit? Have that firmly set in your mind before you start research, otherwise the wealth of information may overwhelm you.

Go to the library and do a little research on popular clothing at the time - which I think is always great fun! Make a general note of what people were wearing. Were the dresses long or short? Did men wear pegged or loose pants? Were gentleman's shirts button-down at the collar, or rounded? Pay attention to the general trend, not specifics. Trends include what I've just listed, as well as colors preferred, how much of the body could be shown by certain classes, what feature of the body was a focus of fashion, etc. Write them down, or make photocopies of outfits that catch your eye.
Watch movies from the period, or set during the period, and take note of what the characters are wearing. Pay attention to general style, colors (if it's a color film) and fabrics used.

Vintage clothing
If you had the money to buy vintage clothing, you probably wouldn't be reading this document, but you should look in your yellow pages for places that sell and rent vintage costumes. Rental can be an affordable option for a one-shot event.
I have bought wearable items that were quite affordable because they were not in the 'mint' condition that serious collectors desire. In fact, I have an authentic early-20's wedding gown hanging in my closet that I bought for $25 because the silk has been rather badly water-stained. That garment will become the apparel for the wraith of a jilted bride, so the slightly-tatty condition is just perfect!

Evoke the Period
Rather than focusing upon literally reproducing the period in question, which can become expensive and time-consuming, work towards an evocative ensemble - something superficial which at least harkens to the period you are trying to represent.

Contemporary Pieces
If you are running a contemporary event - as in, it's set in the current day - then costuming is a bit easier. But what if you're on a budget or a time-crunch, and what you have in your closet just won't do? Don't despair!Keep the general tips in mind and...

Thrift Stores.
Thrift stores and garage sales can be amazingly helpful. Don't just go to one place and then give up, but side aside an entire day and visit as many places as you can. Thrift stores are usually willing to hold something for you for one day, so you can keep looking at other places for something more suitable without worrying if your previous choice is going to be bought in the meantime. I can usually put together an entire outfit for less than $20, with a bit of prudent shopping

Talk to Your Friends
Maybe you've got a friend or two who can help you out. Maybe they'll let you borrow that killer coat they wore at the last event. Maybe they can sew and make something for you at a reasonable cost. Ask around, it can't hurt.

Tips for Those Who Can't Sew

Period Pieces

Producing An Outfit
General trends can be reproduced quite easily with a trip to thrift stores - just remember that you are trying to evoke the period as best you can. Literal reproduction is not required. You can easily find things like formal dresses, various styled-shirts and even appropriate shoes in used-clothing stores.

When Serious Moonlight ran a 1920's period event for 20 people, we had to provide costume tips for the participants. We created a fashion guide for them and gave them a 'bare minimum' to strive for - button-down shirt and formal pants (not jeans or slacks) for the men, and blouses with skirts not higher than the knee for women. Of course, flappers and gangsters were an exception...

Costume Shops/Rental
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I'm quite lucky in that there are several very good costume retailers and renters in the area. Look in your yellow pages for costume-rentals stores in your area and shop around.

Contemporary Pieces

You'd be Amazed By What You Can Do With Scissors, Glue and Ribbon

In other words, be creative! Even if you can't sew, you can shorten those too-long pants or skirt with a bit of judicious trimming and glue. (Hint - pin first, and check the results in a mirror before cutting). Trim with satiny-ribbon and put some fancy button-covers over the original buttons and you've changed the look of the whole garment! I took a thrift-store coat and turned it into a garment fit for a Centauri noble with just nine feet of trim, a couple of safety pins and a whole lot of glue. Glue guns cost about five dollars and can save you a lot of pricked fingers! Just make sure you're using a low temperature glue-gun - look on the packaging for a reassurance that the glue is safe for fabric and crafts, otherwise you'll probably melt your trim!

When All Else Fails, Defy Convention.

You want to be a vampire, but there is a lack of black things in your wardrobe? Who says vampires have to wear black - although it seems to be a rule, if my observations are accurate :- ) Why not clad yourself in ivory and cream, with a telltale tiny drop of red on your collar?

You want to be a Mafiosi, but lack an Italian suit? Let go of the Hollywood stereotype and find yourself something smart, but not necessarily a fancy suit. Or even be a thug-on-a-day-off and wear clothes that are casual, but that you could still fight in if you had to.

You want to be a ravening psychotic? Eschew bloodstained rags and don an outfit of any style you like. Just make sure that is very clean and tidy. Too clean and tidy....


Tips for Those Who Can Sew

Sewing can cost money - as a fabric buying fool, I can attest to that - but the satisfaction of a custom made garment is worth it! The key to a satisfactory outfit is to budget your money and time wisely, and not to go overboard during the planning stage. I've gotten more use out of a simple one-afternoon's-construction-made-out-of-remnants velvet skirt that I have out of the formal geisha-style dress that took me a week.

This section will be a tad incomplete until I have gathered up all my data regarding pattern numbers, etc.

Period Pieces.

Fortunately, period patterns can be found quite easily, these days. However, I've noticed that the majority of patterns published are for women, so you may have a long search ahead of you if you're a guy. Look at the Links and Recommendations section below for my suggestions on where to get patterns and supplies.

You can also look through contemporary patterns and modify them to meet your needs. When it comes to men's clothes, very little has changed in the past eighty years - pants are still pants, it's just a matter of reproducing the fit and the fabric. Sit yourself down at your local fabric store's pattern table and spend a lazy afternoon flipping through pattern books. Try to ignore the modern, garish colors that the featured clothing may be made out of, but imagine the items in muted, period tones.

Allow Yourself Enough Time
You want enough time to be picky about your ensemble, your fabric and your patterns. The more notice you have on an event, the better. Use all of the lead-time to your advantage.For a hardcore period event, I like at least four month's warning... I'm a slow seamstress, you see...

Keep It Simple.
That Southern gown, complete with bustle and petticoats may be calling to you, but always keep your schedule, budget and abilities in mind. You will be much happier with a simpler outfit that is ready on time, rather than a complex ensemble that is held together with safety pins and hot glue.


Contemporary Pieces

To Sew or Not To Sew?
Sure, you could create yourself a killer outfit from scratch, but as has been observed before, that can take time and serious money. My favorite outfits usually consist of one homemade item and the rest taken from my closet or thrift-stores, and that's what I recommend to you.

Making up for a Minor Lack
Go through your closet and decide what you want for an outfit. If you are missing a single garment, you can buy/borrow or sew what you need quite quickly - if it's not too complicated. If you need to assemble an entire outfit, then you have to consider whether it's more efficient to make an outfit, buy it, or combine the two.

As a thumb-fingered seamstress who is still getting the hang of buttonholes, I've learned that simple is better. You can jazz up a simple pattern with a fancy fabric or nice trim.
I have found the directions on most Simplicity and Butterick patterns bearable. Folkwear patterns can be complicated, but the directions are usually clear and concise. I do not recommend Vogue patterns for the beginning sewer, as their instructions can be confusing - as I found out when I blindly followed a pattern diagram and royally messed up the lining for vest. Always look at the pattern's instructions before buying it. Similarly-styled garments from different manufacturers can have radically different directions.

Look for easy and quick patterns, something you can complete in a day or two. At Halloween, even if your outfit is ready to go, go through pattern books and buy some costume patterns for things you might need in the future - such as simple capes, pirate outfits, togas, etc, since it's a devil to find them outside of the Halloween season.Halloween is also the best time to get those patterns cheaply. I'm forever gnashing my teeth when I have to pay more than five dollars per pattern... Jo-Anne's and New York Fabrics regularly put all of their patterns on sale.


Links and Recommendations

Costuming For the LARPer
A few words I cobbled together for a specific event.

The Bay Area Costumer's Guild
The most awesome resource for Bay Area costumers - and non-locals, too. I find the "Pattern Reviews" particularly useful.

Folkwear Patterns have recently come back into production and can be bought via mail order or Lacis. I've used a few of them and found the directions concise and the patterns easy to cut. Patterns that can be found range from the 19th Century to present-day and range from a Moroccan day suit to a Model-T duster coat. A must for anyone looking for 20th Century historical patterns.

Amazon Dry Goods.
2218 E. 11th Street, Davenport, IA 52803-3760.
Tel: (800) 798-7979, Catalog $7.00
This is a mail-order company specializing in Victorian clothing and paraphenalia. Their catalog is extensive, and is a visual treat, even if you don't buy anything!

2982 Adeline St., Berkeley, CA 94703.
Tel: (510) 843-7290
This is a fantastic place for period patterns, from the 1850's to 1950's. They also have a great variety of vintage clothing (mostly women's) and many books on costuming and the history of fashion.

ACT Costume Shop.
If you are in the SF Bay Area, I highly recommend the ACT Costume Shop in San Francisco. They're pricey (between $60 - $100 for a weekend, depending upon the costume) but the costumers will knock themselves out putting together a perfect outfit for you. Reservations for a fitting are required, so call ahead.

Other Useful Advice for LARPers

Main Page